Smithsonian American Art Museum

reflections on the urge to create digital history as online museum gallery.

“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial” — Bob Dylan

Digital historians want to turn the Internet into a museum.

I don’t mean that digital history wants to render the past dead and lifeless (no museum does that either, but the institutions have that reputation in the cultural imagination). What I mean is that many digital history projects conceptualize the museum exhibition as the ideal mode for historical expression in the digital arena. It is present in many of the projects produced across a variety of platforms: WordPress, Scalar (even though Scalar attempts to support multimedia narrative), simple HTML websites. It is certainly inscribed into the design of the popular Omeka platform.

The museum model is particularly on display with digital history projects that seek to reach broader audiences. For some reason, historians seem to imagine the museum as a step into public life beyond the classroom, the talk, the book, or the publication.

Having spent some time on the borderline between the historical profession and the museum world, I am struck at this imagining of digital space as museum gallery. The irony is that just as historians look to the museum as a model for broadening access to history for larger audiences, museum professionals themselves are, in many cases, turning away from the museum as a model. It isn’t enough now to simply put up an exhibition for many museum professionals. Art or artifacts on display do not “activate” a space enough for the public anymore.

Just at the moment when historians are turning to the museum as a model, museum professionals are in many ways questioning it. In the museum world, there is an urge to abandon typical approaches to putting materials on display in a gallery. While digital historians imagine the website as a space for displaying primary materials with shorter “label”-like text attached, museum professionals exclaim, “nobody reads the labels!” and sometimes even do away with them entirely. While digital historians romanticize creating a website that leaves the book or article in the dust to allow audiences to roam among the artifacts and sources themselves (or more accurately to roam among their digital incarnations), museum professionals want to give their exhibitions more shape and form through tours, events, multimedia activities, and other kinds of interpretive layers that ask visitors to do more than simply roam and look. Historians want to abandon being the authoritative guide; museum professionals want to more dynamically embrace the role. There’s an odd shift going on here between these two professions. Well, I suppose the history always looks greener on the other side of the institutional fence.

In my Approaching Digital History methods seminar this fall at Northwestern University, students and I keep coming back to this question of the urge among historians to shift from writing interpretive narrative to producing virtual exhibitions. My theory is that the exhibition seems to be preferred because it does two things at once, which is to say it moves in two, almost opposite directions that are both a goal for historians. Historians imagine the website as museum gallery pushing history out into the public while also finding themselves pleased that this kind of design echoes the space of the remote archive from which their sources originated.

First, imagining a website as an exhibition suggests a more public, less authoritative mode of sharing material than the conventional book or article. It seems to fulfill the urge to encourage interactivity and user control over the materials rather than place the author front and center as the guide through a historical topic. Public history is imagined here via digital history as a more democratic act.

At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, the online exhibition design model also looks and works a bit like an an archive. And as such, it proposes that a digital historical website provides access to “the stuff” of history in unmediated form. Of course, “the stuff” is in fact highly mediated, since the digital requires not only the creation of digital surrogates of older, pre-digital artifacts, but also all kinds of mediating design structures through which users/readers access the materials. But there is something appealing for historians about letting users in to see and experience a digital version of the materials of history themselves. You too, can be a historian, the exhibition model implies. We collect, you decide.

Not that there is anything wrong with these urges to bring history out to wider audiences or to bring wider audiences into the archives and their troves of evidentiary holdings. However, I and my students have been wondering whether historians have grappled enough with the continued need for an author, for the continued value of expressing an argument, one of course based on evidence, but also experienced through a highly developed, explicitly present, and opinionated voice. Maybe historians need to become more like exhibitionists themselves (ok, gross, not too extremely please!) and let the exhibition model feed into other modes of digital design that place the interpretive voice/narrator front and center.

To do so might allow digital historians to serve as better guides to the past as well as just sharers of the historical record from which that past is put on display.

1 thought on “Exhibitionists

  1. “Popular songs are the only art form that describes the temper of the times; that’s where people hang out. It’s not in books; it’s not on the stage; it’s not in the galleries. All this art they’ve been talking about, it just remains on the shelI. It doesn’t make anyone happier.”

    – Bob Dylan

    “Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that. To go to an art gallery thing where you get free milk and doughnuts and where there is a rock-‘n’-roll band playing: That’s just a status affair. I’m not putting it down, mind you; but I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. I think museums are vulgar. They’re all against sex.”

    – Bob Dylan

    sorry couldn’t resist

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